Bible, Main, Teaching, z140, z152
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The difference between guilt and shame

Credit: John W. Iwanski/Flickr/Creative Commons

As a mental health professional, I’m often asked the difference between guilt and shame.

Guilt is “I did something wrong.”
Shame is “I am what is wrong.”

Guilt is “I violated a norm, a societal expectation, or a requirement set out by God.”
Shame is “I am at my core without any worth.”

Guilt originates from selfishness or self-centredness.
Shame originates from trauma, from life experiences that overwhelm one’s emotional and mental capacity.

Guilt requires forgiveness, restitution to those who have been harmed, and a decision of your will to change the guilty behaviour.
Shame requires a reorientation of one’s brain to align itself with what is true.

Guilt wears a person down.
Shame destroys what it means to be a unique person who can enter into the joy of their relationship with a loving God.

Guilt points a person to what needs to change in his/her life.
Shame prevents a person from wanting to change because of a core belief that s/he doesn’t deserve wellness and normalcy.

I deal daily with people who are experiencing shame, helping them understand that their anxiety, continuing trauma, and powerlessness arises because of what has been done to them or around them.

But I truly believe that only a living relationship with Jesus Christ can deal with the guilt that arises from sin.

And what is sin? The Bible defines it in two ways:

  1. Sin of omission — James 4:17 says sin is knowing what is the right thing to do, but choosing not to do it.
  2. Sin of conduct — Romans 14:23 says conduct that is not of faith — that you have doubts about — is sin.

If you are experiencing shame, a counselor / psychotherapist experienced in working with trauma can help.

If you are experiencing guilt, getting in a right relationship with God and those you have hurt is the only thing that will.


Earl Blacklock, MALM, MDIV, MC, is the Executive Director of Island Integrated Counselling of Nanaimo and Parksville on Vancouver Island, BC

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